By Father Brendan Pelphrey, PhD
The Orthodox Church is the original Christian church on Earth. It has existed since the Day of Pentecost, described in Acts Ch. 2 in the Bible. Through the centuries the Orthodox way of worship, and the Orthodox faith, have not changed.
The Orthodox Christian faith is Biblical faith. The New Testament was written by the Apostles in Greek, and today the Orthodox Church still reads the New Testament in its original language. While the Bible is interpreted in many different ways today, the Orthodox Church does not try to interpret the Bible in new ways. Rather, we understand the Bible in the same way it was understood in the first centuries of the Church.
Therefore we believe in salvation by the grace of God, in Jesus Christ. We also understand that no one is saved apart from faith, which we also understand in terms of being “faithful to Christ.”
The correct name for the Orthodox Church is “The Holy Apostolic Orthodox Catholic Church.” The word “holy” indicates that it is the Body of Christ. “Apostolic” means that it was begun by the Apostles, and the teachings of the Church completely agree with their teachings. “Orthodox” means that the Church keeps the original doctrines and practices of the ancient Church: ortho means “right, correct, straight” and doxa means “appearance, glory” (or perhaps from dokeo meaning “I teach”); hence “straight-teaching,” “correct teaching” or “right appearance.” The word “catholic” comes from katholicos in Greek, which means “universal.” This word was used by the first Christians to mean that the true Church is the same everywhere in the world. The word “church” translates the Greek word ekklesia, which means “called out”—that is, that Christians are called by God to be set apart from the world, for Him.
According to the Bible, the Church is the mystical body of Jesus Christ on Earth. Jesus promised His disciples, “Lo, I will be with you always, even to the end of the ages” (Matthew 27:20). He also said, “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20). St. Paul understands the presence of Jesus Christ to be hidden within those who are baptized into Christ. In baptism we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This is the same gift which was poured out upon the disciples at Pentecost (Acts ch. 2).
The Church is also the Bride of Christ, according to the vision of St. John the Evangelist (cf. Revelation 22:17, 2 Corinthians 11:2). Jesus referred to Himself many times as the Bridegroom, fulfilling the Old Testament prophecy that the Saviour would be a “husband” to Israel (cf. Matthew 9:15, John 3:29, Song of Songs 4:08). In fact, the most common image of salvation in the New Testament is that of marriage, in which Christ is the Bridegroom and the Church is the Bride. This image is often employed in Jesus’ parables and sayings, for example the parable of the Ten Virgins (Matthew 25) or the sayings in John 14, which is a lengthy reference to Jewish marriage customs.
Orthodox Christians believe that the Church, the Bride of Christ, is a real gathering of people whose history can be traced back to the Day of Pentecost. Being part of the Church does not just mean agreeing with what the first Christians taught. It means actually joining the historical Church through baptism and chrismation (“confirmation”). In this sense, there is only one true Church in the world: the Orthodox Church, which can trace an unbroken history back to the very beginning.
The first Apostles appointed their own successors in each city where they founded a congregation. Those bishops (church leaders) in turn appointed others to follow them, and so on. Historically, there were always several equal bishops or “overseers” of the Church. These were the bishops of the most important cities in the world at their time: the bishops of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria (Egypt), Antioch (Syria), and Jerusalem. In later centuries, to these were added the Patriarchs (senior bishops) of Moscow (Russia) and of other ancient cities and countries.
Both Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches make the claim to be the “original” Church. However, historically the Roman Catholic Church split away from the Orthodox Church in the so-called “Great Schism” of 1054. While there were many differences in faith and practice between the Eastern Church and the Church of Rome, a primary difference occurred over the issue of who is at the head of the Church. In Orthodox tradition, all the senior bishops (Patriarchs) are equals, and they make decisions together; whereas in the West, the Patriarch (“Pope”) of Rome was seen as the sole and infallible head, Christ’s representative on Earth. The Orthodox Church has never accepted the idea of a single leader of the Church, apart from Christ.
Today in America the Orthodox Church is sometimes called “Greek Orthodox.” This is only a matter of convenience, since the largest group of Orthodox Christians in America originally came from Greece. However, Orthodox churches are found in all parts of the world. Historically the Orthodox Church always used the local language in its liturgies (worship services). Originally the primary language was Greek throughout the Roman Empire. Later, Latin was used in the western part of the Empire; Copt, G’ez and other local languages were used in North Africa; Armenian was used in much of Asia Minor, and so on. Gradually the local Orthodox churches around the world became known according to languages they used (i.e. “Russian Orthodox,” “Syrian Orthodox,” “Serbian Orthodox” and so on). Unlike the Protestant churches, however, all these churches are one and the same in their faith and worship.
Among the oldest Orthodox churches are those in the Middle East and Africa, Asia and Armenia, India, Russia and the Balkan states. It is interesting that Americans frequently think Christianity arrived in Africa in the 19th century, whereas in fact the churches in Ethiopia and Egypt are among the oldest in the world (Acts 8:26 ff.). St. Thomas the Apostle evangelized India and is still remembered there. St. Andrew the Apostle brought the gospel to the Caucasus, paving the way for later missions to the Ukraine and Russia. Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales received the Gospel from monks in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, and Celtic Christian spirituality continued the traditions of Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy first arrived in the Americas in Alaska, from Russian missionaries in the late 18th century. In America, Orthodox Christians reflect many different national backgrounds, as the Church came to this country from many parts of the world. Eventually, however, there will be only one Orthodox Church in the United States, with its worship in English.
Worship in the Orthodox Church today is the same in all parts of the world, and strictly follows the ancient traditions of the Church. On Sundays the Divine Liturgy is the same as that in the fourth century, and is named for the Patriarch of Constantinople, St. John Chrysostom, who gave it its current form. The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, in turn, is very similar to the Liturgy as it was followed in the second century. Earlier liturgies were similar, but not exactly the same in the various local churches. The Liturgy is always a complete celebration of the Lord’s Supper, celebrated with solemnity and profound beauty. The very beautiful robes (vestments) worn by Orthodox bishops, priests, and deacons are also ancient and reflect very early Christian practice.
Finally, the faith and teachings of the Orthodox Church are those of the original Church. Orthodox Christians point out that the New Testament was composed in Greek, the language of the ancient Church. Not everything was written down in the books of the New Testament, as the evangelist John writes at the end of his Gospel. That part which was handed down orally, and later written down as Canons of the Church, is known by Orthodox Christians as Holy Tradition.
Holy Tradition tells us how the original Christians practiced their faith and interpreted the New Testament writings, from the first century onward. For this reason Orthodox Christians say that the Bible must be understood in light of Tradition. This Tradition defines for us the beliefs of the Church, as opposed to false teachings. These beliefs are stated clearly in the Creeds of the Church (chiefly, the Nicene Creed composed at the ecumenical councils of Nicaea and Constantinople in the fourth century). The ancient Tradition also defines for us our way of worship and of personal prayer and conduct.
For these reasons, Orthodox Christianity today has become important to all the denominations in the world as a source for their own traditions and understanding of Christian faith. We may say that while all Christians read the Bible, it is Orthodox Christians who wrote it! We welcome you to visit the Orthodox Church and to learn more about our faith and way of life.
June 18, 2008